The Belcea Quartet: Magnificent in Beethoven

23/01/2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea-Fisher, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)). Wigmore Hall, London, 21.1.2012 (MB)

String Quartet no.2 in G major, op.18 no.2
String Quartet no.8 in E minor, op.59 no.2, ‘Razumovsky’
String Quartet no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.131

I have almost nothing but praise for this concert, but perhaps no praise would be higher than to say that these performances from the Belcea Quartet had me wondering anew at Beethoven’s achievement as a composer of string quartets. Of course, no one who was not certifiably insane would doubt that achievement; yet, in a sense that is the point, for to elicit such wonder, rather than mere confirmation, testifies to the quality of the performances heard.

The op.18 quartets can seem – and certainly have seemed, in my experience – relatively uninteresting in lesser hands, but there was no opportunity to entertain such an impression on the present occasion. There was a splendidly Haydnesque opening: nothing wrong with that, indeed everything right with it, though it was soon answered by someone who was indisputably Beethoven, the Beethoven of relatively early piano sonatas, such as his op.13 and op.14 works, which I long found more interesting than the first set of quartets. No longer. The first movement exuded intensity, not to be confused with excessive Romanticism in the manner of, say, the Borodin Quartet, yet benefited equally from a fine command of line: the Belcea players knew where the music was heading, and enabled it to arrive. There were times when I wondered whether the reading was a little scaled down – I have certainly heard greater drama – but the intimacy drew one in, just as these players had in Schubert in the absurdly cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall last summer. The muted – not in a technical sense – passages of the development were a case in point, until the triumphant cello pedal reminded us of another Beethoven, the incipient symphonist. Even then, the performance quickly subsided, insisting that we as listeners did our fair share of the work. There was a lovely throwaway ending too, throwaway not equating to inconsequential. The Adagio cantabile was rapt, lyrical, benefiting greatly from Corina Belcea’s sweet-toned first violin. Though the line faltered slightly before the astonishing scherzo intervention, apparently straight out of a much later Beethoven, there was little else about which to cavil. The third movement was graceful: a scherzo, but a scherzo with definite roots in the minuet, not unlike that of the op.2 no.2 piano sonata. In both works, and in good performances of both works, the anacrusis will – and here did – perform a crucial structural role. The trio, meanwhile, offered delightful hints of the serenade. Beethoven’s finale proved more vigorous, underlining the exploratory radicalism of his key relationships – as well, more briefly, as his hints at Elysium. And yet, this remained emphatically a conversation between instrumentalists such as Haydn would have understood. Moreover, the reinstatement of the tonic came, quite properly, as a Haydn-like surprise, timing and humour finely judged.

Greater terseness and an almost Sturm und Drang Romanticism immediately announced the world of the Razumovsky quartets, in this case the second. Silences too were given their due, especially in the first movement. Moreover, the players were not afraid to employ a less than beautiful sound where necessary, or at least justifiable. The slow movement was exquisitely presented: what in lesser hands can border upon the banal, for instance the scale passages, here sounded every inch as ecstatic – and musically necessary – as the more obviously ‘sublime’ passages. Climaxes were insistent without the all-too-common short-circuit of driving too hard. Above all, here was to be heard Beethoven’s noble simplicity, its roots in Gluck and Winckelmann’s Classical ideal. If the febrile, concentrated scherzo always makes me think of Boris Godunov, that is my problem of hindsight: Beethoven’s counterpoint has its own Classical, and at times modernist, tale to tell, and very well was it told here. The finale evinced an excellent balance between intensity and insouciance, which is to say that it was not quite a balance, but nevertheless gave the latter its due.

How does one speak about the late quartets? They travel so far beyond language, even beyond music as conventionally understood, that one hardly dare try. Fortunately my brief on this occasion is merely to write about a performance, though again the holy ground of op.131 renders one at the very least wary. At any rate, the first movement plunged us immediately into another world again: this time, somewhere between, or perhaps rather beyond, Schoenberg and Bartók. The Belcea’s sound was rarefied, or perhaps better rare, more than once putting me in mind of Mozart in a related key, the F-sharp minor of his twenty-third piano concerto. Passion was not excluded, far from it, but rather was sublated – I can hardly avoid the Hegelian ‘aufgehoben’ with respect to late Beethoven – into something that both negated and incorporated its relatively narrow standpoint. Bach and Palestrina were ghosts at the feast, as again was that Gluckian noble simplicity: I could not help but think that the three conventional ‘periods’ of Beethoven’s career were made for Hegelian, dialectical treatment. This movement, in any case, stood as a portal to integration and disintegration such as Adorno would have understood. As Boulez has remarked, Beethoven’s late quartets will always remain an intellectual challenge; and if they will for him, they surely will for us.

Negation, then, came with the second movement, and what a negation: somewhere between Mozart and Haydn, yet again somehow beyond them. Yes, this was of course Beethoven’s doing, but the performers play a role too. No sooner was this said, then further negation must be done, in the transition to the fourth movement: not just dialectics, but a definite instantiation of the post-Burkean sublime, akin to that of the late piano sonatas. Karl Barth famously remarked that, if the angels played Bach in front of God, they must perform Mozart en famille; the fourth movement presents a case for inclusion of Beethoven in their familial repertoire. For this is – and, in this performance, was – Mozartian in Magic Flute fashion, or Haydn-like in the sense of his late, wondrous F minor/major piano variations. Just the right note of restrained yet ecstatic sublimity was sounded, yet that sublimity can take radically different, even diametrically opposed, forms: Beethoven the composer of variations has only Bach as a precursor. The transition to the fifth movement was impeccably judged; it is, of course, not quite a transition, merely the concluding variation, yet it sounded as such nevertheless. Beethoven’s kinetic energy in this ensuing scherzo movement could not help but put me in mind of the Ninth Symphony, yet the players reminded one that he is perhaps more elusive, and allusive, here. Execution, with one exception that merely reminded one that the performers were human, was well-nigh perfect, but not in a remote sense. I can say little of the sixth movement, other than that we stood on holy ground, clearly related to that of the ‘Praeludium’ from the Missa Solemnis. The finale intensified, contradicted, transformed, and reinstated: the quintessence of late Beethovenian fugue. Bartók seemed almost faint-hearted by comparison.

Mark Berry

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